There's No Such Thing as Good Writing: Craig Nova's Radical Revising Process

The author of All the Dead Yale Men doesn't just tweak when he rewrites—he tries on entirely new points of view and genre styles to learn more about the story he's telling.
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Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Craig Nova, author of All the Dead Yale Men, is a manic rewriter. He showed me a picture of what he calls his "slag heap"—a huge stack of manuscript pages, piled several feet high, that accumulated as he wrote his latest book. Nova does not merely tinker with word choice the way some editors do; instead, he writes again from scratch. Sometimes he'll approach a first draft in radical new ways, adopting new points of view—even trying again in different genres—to learn more about a character or scene. Directly contradicting the "first thought, best thought" code of spontaneity espoused by the Beats, Nova feels his work's not done until he explores each scene or section from every possible angle.

All the Dead Yale Men continues the Boston family saga that began with The Good Son (1982), which John Irving called "the richest and most expert novel in my recent reading by any writer now under 40." Nova's work has appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, and The New York Times Magazine; he teaches writing at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

Craig Nova: All happy writers are the same, but each hardworking writer has a train wreck that is perfectly fitted to the task at hand. After all, as every novelist knows, writing a book is a collision between what one wants and what one gets.

My version of this started the moment I read a line by Robert Graves, who said that there is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting. Please see the photograph below.

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I found this to be doubly true, if this is ontologically possible, when I combined it with a comment from F.R. Leavis, or I think this is who it was, in an essay called "Technique as Discovery." This essay made the point that if you changed the form of what you wrote from, say, drama to poetry, you would discover something about your subject you didn't know before.

It occurred to me that if this worked when you moved from one form to another, then the same thing should happen when you changed the basic elements of a novel.

Take point of view, for example. Let's say you are writing a scene in which a man and a woman are breaking up. They are doing this while they are having breakfast in their apartment. But the scene doesn't work. It is dull and flat.

So, applying the two notions mentioned above the solution would be to change point of view. That is, if it is told from the man's point of view, change it to the woman's, and if that doesn't work, tell it from the point of view of the neighborhood, who is listening through the wall in the apartment next door, and if that doesn't work have this neighbor tell the story of the break up, as he hears it, to his girlfriend. And if that doesn't work tell it from the point of view of a burglar who is in the apartment, and who hid in a closet in the kitchen when the man and woman who are breaking up came in and started arguing.

If the story is told from the man's point of view and doesn't work, change it to the woman's, and if that doesn't work, tell it from the point of view of the neighbor listening through the wall in the apartment next door.

It seems to me that each time you add a new point of view and tell the story again, you will discover something you didn't know before. And if this is true for point of view, it should hold true for structure, language, and all the other elements that go into a piece of fiction.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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